Influence hangs heavy in the air in Richard Aoyade’s darkly comic second feature The Double. An adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novella, it tells the tale of one man, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), who feels invisible within a hermetically sealed world. He is but a gear in a great, ungainly machine, a cypher within a bureaucracy that is fast forgetting him. Timid, introverted, socially awkward to the point of disability, Simon’s attentions are focused acutely on a co-worker, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who, like everyone else, barely registers his existence.
It’s a well-trodden essay on the isolation, the loneliness, the inner turmoil of someone ill-at-ease in their own skin. Simon is a relatable figure as he is the magnification of all of our insecurities. Aoyade tackles this sensitive creature with seemingly great insight, and Eisenberg conveys it with cringe-worthy authenticity. Just look at the way Simon’s hand twitches, digits flitting like the impulsive tics of a savant; it speaks of the broader character – constantly struggling against the fight-or-flight response.
Then James Simon (also Eisenberg) appears. Initially he is the very definition of wish-fulfillment – the louder, more successful, more charismatic version of Simon that our lowly protagonist could only dream of projecting. They become firm friends. More than that. Compadres. Two against the world… But… But… Maybe James isn’t the kindred spirit Simon thinks he is? This doppelganger’s arrival doesn’t signify a sea change for Simon, instead it underlines the threats already apparent. More than ever Simon is in danger of disappearing, as James takes his life and outdoes him at it. Even getting the girl…
Aoyade stages all of this in a world beautifully divorced from time and place. No discernible era can be attached to The Double, with its satisfyingly chunky technology, brick buildings and phenomenally shadowy apartment blocks. The cast is a decidedly Anglo-American mix, ruling out specific location, while the music choices – 60s Japanese pop songs – enhance this fitting sense of dislocated setting. It makes The Double very much a parable, working in the heightened style of film noir spliced with Kafka spliced with Gilliam spliced with, ohhh, you name it.
As I said at the top there, influence hangs heavy in the air on this one.
So while The Double has a stark visual language (it’s one of the most beautiful films you’ll probably see this year), there’s a nagging sense of familiarity to everything too, which has a subtle neutering effect on the film itself. It’s almost as if you’ve already seen The Double‘s own double, except you can’t quite remember all of its features. A half remembered face in the shadows.
Aoyade should not be held solely responsible for this queasy feeling. His film is, after all, based on a classic piece of literature which has been indirectly riffed on or outright plagiarised now for decades. A copy of a copy of a copy. Aoyade directly credits the source. However, this sense of deja vu is difficult to shift, especially as the film progresses into it’s middle-act; the downward spiral of Simon.
Misfortune dogs him at every turn. And while The Double is at times exceptionally comic (as it ought to be from a man as funny as Aoyade has repeatedly proven to be), the overall mood here is more downtrodden, occasionally even mean. Simon ought to undergo some level of difficulty in order for his anguish to resonate, but the degree to which this kid gets the short end of the stick pushes the film perilously close to monotony. In the audience, it’s hard not to clock-watch during this journey to the bottom, waiting for the upswing. And The Double is a relatively short movie.
And when it comes, really, is the upswing we’re given really enough?
But let’s take a step back here, because there’s an awful lot worth praising too. Eisenberg (who, really, I can take or leave) mines his usual arrogant-dick routine for James, but in Simon creates someone far more sympathetic – so much so that we can forgive him his faintly-troubling voyeuristic tendencies. Though they are often dressed the same, Eisenberg’s performance(s) distinctly mark one character from the other, recalling previous successes like Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers or Nicolas Cage in Adaptation (still his best work).
Elsewhere the aforementioned Wasikowska seems to be having a ball playing the sweetly seductive but equally insular Hannah, riffing on the femme fatale role, but giving it her own flavour. If it’s reminiscent of her work in Stoker, well, that isn’t a bad thing. Aoyade also draws on previous collaborators, populating the film’s smaller roles with faces from his last film Submarine.
Visually, The Double is far bolder; its shadows recalling the sumptuous blacks of David Lynch circa Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, while the production design brings to mind Lynch’s Eraserhead as much as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The compositions feel more deliberately constructed also, sparking connections to the French new-wave as well as the precise concoctions of Wes Anderson. There’s also a delicious preoccupation with malfunctioning technology that harks back to the likes of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle.
While Aoyade never overtly apes or steals from anyone, this sense of influence swirling like a cocktail makes The Double a strange beast; unquestionably the work of its creator, but manufactured out of a range of mannerisms experienced elsewhere, be they cinematic or literary. Paradoxically, despite this, The Double feels like a far more confident feature than Submarine, but still the work of a man trying to find his own particular groove.
For all the reservations expressed, The Double is still a rewarding experience, if a slight one. It’s luxuries will make a visit worth your while, and Aoyade should certainly be applauded for the dynamic flourishes achieved here, which spark huge optimism for whatever he turns his hand to next.